New Lakota Dictionary contains over 20,000 new entries
The Lakota Language consortium is debuting a new edition of its New Lakota Dictionary.
This third edition contains 20,000 more entries than its predecessor.
The previous New Lakota Dictionary was published over a decade ago.
Alex FireThunder is Oglala Lakota and the Deputy Director of the Lakota Language Consortium. He says Lakota is a living language and continues to evolve.
“We’ll continue to develop new words for things that we have in our life. There’s a word for cell phone. There’s a word for computer. There’s a word for car," FireThunder said. "A lot of words that we consider old words were new words at one time. A word for wagon, clocks, those are all pretty old words that were coined by our ancestors.”
The language of the Oceti Sakowin is an oral language, meaning it was never written down until the 1800s. FireThuder says other words and phrases had been around for generations and are only now being documented.
“I found this word in an old rabbit dance song, it says 'imacuka,' and that's conjugated to the first person. The third person would be 'icuka,'" FireThunder said. "It means to have a taking or a liking for somebody. That was in an old love song.”
Many children fluent Lakota/Dakota and Nakota were chided for speaking their language during the boarding school era. Most fluent speakers are now elders.
FireThunder said he wants to see the dictionary get put to good use.
“My hope is that these words leave these pages,” FireThunder said. “These words are here for everybody to access. But, my hope is that they use them. Use them and speak them. Speak the life into them.”
The Lakota Language Consortium is also announcing new changes to its language app, which they hope will entice the younger generation to communicate with elders.
Click play to hear SDPB's Lee Strubinger's full interview with FireThunder.
My name is Alex Firethunder, and I am the Deputy Director for the Lakota Language Consortium.
Can you tell me what it is this massive book sitting in front of us is?
Yeah. This is the third edition of the new Lakota Dictionary. It has 21,000 previously undocumented entries in comparison to the first edition, which came out, I want to say, 2007, maybe 2008, before my time. It's quite an accomplishment. We're continuing to document words that were never written down. Our language was never written until the late 18 hundreds, and even then, only by a select few and in and on into the last 50 years, a large amount of our fluent speakers are not readers and writers of the language. They just speak it orally. There's a lot of words that were never written, and we continue to document language from our speakers that we still have today to ensure that these words continue on to be learned by today's language learners.
Is there maybe a unique story behind some of the new entries, words that hadn't been documented?
I personally got the chance to be a part of some of that, a very small fraction of that research, but my mom is a first language Lakota speaker, and so once in a while she might use a word and I'll look it up in the dictionary, and most of the time I'll find it. There's one word that she would use when she's mad. She says kapemni or sometimes she adds another word that rhymes with it, kapemni semni and it doesn't really make much sense. Kapemni means to twirl, and that's the word that was in the first and second edition of the translation. So I was always curious. What does that mean? In that context, it doesn't make sense that it means to twirl and so I asked her about it. She said, my grandma would say it when she was mad. That's how she says it.
I started asking around some of the other elders and speakers and they said, "Yeah, yeah, we say that, out of frustration." What does it mean? I don't know. I'll say it's just an idiomatic thing. There's some different theories about, maybe it's because they couldn't pronounce a cuss word in English, so they would say that or something, but it's just a funny word that is used. That definition was added to the third edition. There's actually a third meaning to that same word kapemni, which is more of maybe a spiritual or philosophical concept. It's this vortex, and it's two triangles. It's in a lot of our artwork, two triangles, one facing down, and one facing up and it's represents the tepe, the [inaudible 00:03:06].
It represents this idea that what goes on in the heavens is mirrored here on earth. I think the idea is that it twirls. It's three dimensional, so it twirls around and twirls up in the bottom. So that's also the kapemni, which does make sense with the original definition to twirl, but it's another concept, a deeper philosophical thing but I thought it was really interesting. Came across that in a old book, the Star Knowledge book. I'm not sure if you're familiar with that, published by Sinte Gleska years ago. I remember growing up reading some stories in that book. And then I addressed that with some elders and our linguist, who's one of the editors for this and we confirmed that, that's a third definition. Now that word has three definitions instead of just one.
There are also other words that were not in there entire. Another word is... I found this word in an old rabbit dance song that says [foreign language 00:04:11] and that's conjugated to the first person. So the third person would be [foreign language 00:04:15]. I think it means to have a taking or a liking for somebody. It was in an old love song, and so I came across that. I was listening to old songs, and I'm a singer, so I really like to listen and learn more songs that I never heard or don't know. So, I was trying to identify the words in the songs. It's always been a big interest of the learning the language was to understand the songs. So, I came across, this word, wasn't in the dictionary. We consulted with some elders about it and confirmed the definition and now it's in here. Those are a couple examples, couple stories.
What a couple of 20,000 stories I imagined.
Did you say the second edition came out in 2008? Is that correct?
I think second edition was released in 2011.
The first edition in 2007 or eight. Second edition in 2011 so it's been over 10 years. Definitely it's time for the third edition to come out and we intend to continue doing this work. As long as the Lakota language is a living language, which it is, it'll continue to evolve, continue to grow. We'll continue to identify words that haven't been documented that are old. We'll continue to develop new words for things that we have in our life. There's a word for cellphone, there's a word for computer, there's a word for car and a lot of the things, a lot of words that we consider old words, were new words at one time. A word for wagon, a word for metal. Metal and clocks. Those are all pretty old words that were coined by our ancestors, but they had to. They made them.
In order for the language to continue living, it has to continue to evolve, which means there has to be more work to ensure the language continues into the future.
What is the state of the Lakota language right now?
A majority of our, or I could say all of our first language, virtually all of our first language Lakota speakers are probably in their seventies for the most part. There's a handful of first language speakers that are maybe in their fifties or sixties. My mom's one of the younger ones and unfortunately that transfer of language to the future generations, to the younger generations, mine and younger stopped. There's a number of reasons for that. People talk about boarding schools. I like to look at the fact that we're just, throughout the colonial history, we were really divided from each other.
The Lakota speaking communities were divided into different reservations. Originally, the entire West River, South Dakota was Sioux territory. That's what they called it. It was Dakota territory or Sioux territory. Of course, we call ourselves Lakota, not Sioux, but you know what I mean. We were all within this one territory and when they first established the different reservations, Pine Ridge Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Lower Brew. In the beginning of that reservation era, people had to get permission from the Indian agent to travel off of the reservation borders, even to go visit another res. When you think about it, they had relatives in other reservations, maybe they're going to see their way of their funeral or they're just going to visit grandma or different things. That was one of the first divisions of dividing Lakota speaking communities. Other boarding schools took out young children from their families.
The Lakota speaking families forbid them to speak Lakota. Some of them continued to. They had their perseverance to sneak and speak Lakota when no one was around to each other. I've heard the elders tell this story to this day, really inspiring and just gives me encouragement, like "yes," in the face of everything, in spite of it, we continue to be Lakota. Others, they got severe abuse and they went home speaking English, not knowing or being afraid to speak Lakota, the language of their parents, of their families, their communities, so another division. Another one was, we traditionally lived in camps in what we call [foreign language 00:08:31], extended families or communities. We all lived... They lived together and through the Dawes Act, it made a land allotments to nuclear families and so again, it created these division. So people would gather at maybe at church and things.
I heard a lot of elders speak really positively of their experiences going to church, because it was a time where they got to be together. They got to be together, they got to speak Lakota. Some of the churches, they actually learned, the missionaries learnt to speak Lakota and sing the hymns in Lakota and stuff like that. The churches and the boarding schools are different in that sense, where the churches seemed to support the language and they wanted to use the language actually to spread their gospel, whereas the boarding schools were trying to assimilate our people. So all these things of division, I think is what really deteriorated our language and created the situation that we're in today. But today, I think the more modern things that challenge us are television, radio, radio less now, but in the beginning, in the fifties and sixties, I think radios began to be in homes.
Televisions began to be in homes, and you would hear English through those and so I think that was the first English language being heard in the homes of Lakota people was those things, media. It continues to this day. English is everywhere and I face that challenge because I try to raise my son. He's going to be three in February. I try to raise him with Lakota as his first language, but everywhere we go, he hears English so it's one of the huge challenges. I know he is going to learn English. He has to, and I have nothing... There's nothing wrong with that. Bilingualism is, there's a lot of research that shows that there's a lot of benefits to it.
Obviously we're still in the midst of this pandemic that we're in but I remember when it first happened, the real big concern was that a lot of first language speakers were old and really vulnerable to this virus, especially early on and how deadly it was. Do you have a sense of how the pandemic really affected the language and maybe what was lost?
I could probably list a handful of elders that I know that passed from Covid and then there's also a number that passed away during Covid from other causes. But regardless, the pandemic was really challenging and difficult for the language community, the community of people trying to ensure the language work is done. It was really challenging in multiple ways. One being, the biggest concern was we didn't want to spread the virus, and we don't want to lose our elders to Covid. We couldn't help that when some people caught it and passed, but the other thing was that meant in order to try to protect them, it meant that we couldn't gather. One of the most important things about the language is that it brings us together and so again, we're talking about the division. We were all stuck in our homes and luckily we do have some tools today, Zoom and other technologies to be able to communicate with each other.
So I was able to visit with some elders via Zoom, and I recorded it and then put it on YouTube and things like that. We can utilize these types of technologies to help the work that we're doing. We were talking about the dictionary app earlier, and that's another way of utilizing that technology. But, I think the pandemic was really tough on the language community. There's speakers that we lost and didn't get to record, didn't get to learn more from while they were here and that's always, it's going to be a huge regret, but we got to keep moving forward and in their honor and in their legacy.
This is a massive, beautiful book. What is your hope for it?
My hope is that people utilize it. This isn't just a collection meant to be put behind glass in a museum. The purpose of this work is that people utilize it to learn the language, utilize it to speak the language in their families and in their communities. As a first language English speaker, I look up words in English every now and then, so my hope is that fluent speakers, advanced learners, beginner learners, people that haven't even started learning can all utilize a tool like this to ensure the language continues on. So my hope is that these words leave these pages, these words are here for everybody to access but my hope is that they use them. Use them, and speak them. Speak the life into them.
Is there anything else you want to add that I didn't ask about?
I just want to send my encouragement to each and everybody that cares about the Lakota language, to learn as much as you can about it, to learn as much of the language that you can, to do the work, to become a speaker and be kind and generous with your language to everybody around you. The language is intended to bring us all together. We have a lot of our values attached to our language of generosity and kindness and compassion, bravery, fortitude, all the Lakota values that we have. The language is intended for us to use those with each other and to communicate in a good way and be good relatives. So for anyone that wants to move forward, if you want to know more about what we do at the Lakota Language Consortium, you can visit our website at www.lakota.org and that's L-A-K-H-O-T-A-.-O-R-G.